What is Teacher Leadership and Why Should We Care About it?

by Ceri Dean, CO ASCD Board Member


Teachers as Leaders Blog

The purpose of the Teachers as Leaders blog is to promote understanding and advocacy for teacher leadership, which is at the core of CO ASCD’s vision and mission.



 

This post features a conversation that I had with Mark Sass, Colorado Executive Director for Teach Plus, an organization whose mission is to “empower excellent, experienced, and diverse teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success.”

During this conversation, Mark and I discussed what teacher leadership means, why it is important, and some obstacles to teacher leadership. This blog will focus on those topics. We also talked about teacher leadership in the era of COVID and in the current education environment. Future blogs will feature those topics.


What is Teacher Leadership and Why is it Important?

Historically, teacher leadership has not been recognized as part of leadership in education. Mark brought this point home when he said, “It’s so interesting to me that within our profession we have to have ‘teacher leadership.’ I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of ‘lawyer leadership’, ‘nurse leadership’, or any of those others. I can’t think of any other profession where you don’t have practitioners involved in the day-to-day activities of what goes on within their practice.”

Mark spoke of two aspects of teacher leadership: the practitioner side and the policy side. As Mark explained, the practitioner side is all about respecting the autonomy and professionalism of teachers. This form of teacher leadership often is not recognized. Rather than being included in decision-making, such as curriculum selection or adaptation, teachers are told to “go forth and implement the curriculum with fidelity.” This takes away the teachers’ ability to make the adjustments that they feel are necessary for the students in their classrooms.

The policy side of teacher leadership emphasizes the idea that we need teachers at the table when we’re talking about issues that impact the classroom or that impact the school. It struck a chord with me when Mark said, “In other professions, the professionals drive policy. In teaching, it tends to be policy driving the profession. We need to flip that on its head so that policy is responding to the professionals and it’s going to take teacher leadership to do that.”



Obstacles to Teacher Leadership

There are obstacles to the widespread promotion and support of teacher leadership despite its benefits related to teacher retention and student achievement. Mark provided four examples with some explanation and suggestions for overcoming the obstacles:


1. Society and teachers do not view teachers as leaders. To help shift this mindset, teacher preparation programs could include teacher leadership as part of their curriculum so that teachers understand and value their leadership role.


2. Lack of support for developing necessary skills. Teacher leaders need strong facilitation skills to have uncomfortable conversations with colleagues about teaching practices. They need to be able to build trust among colleagues to create an environment where such conversations can occur. These skills are not natural…you must be trained on them.


3. Lack of time for teacher leaders to reflect on, improve, and share their practice. Teacher leaders need dedicated time and structured opportunities to examine their practice, try new strategies and evaluate the success of those strategies, present and demonstrate successful practices to their colleagues, and help colleagues adopt those practices.


4. Lack of support from principals. Building leaders need to see the power of teacher leadership and embed teacher leadership in the culture of the building. Having policies that establish teacher leadership without providing the necessary cultural supports (e.g., trust, collaboration) will ensure that teacher leadership leads nowhere.


Next Steps

I invite you to share your thoughts about teacher leadership by commenting on this blog, writing a blog in response, reflecting individually, or talking with a colleague about the blog – and, visit the Teachers as Leaders blog regularly for more information about teacher leadership.

If you’re ready to demonstrate your knowledge and skills as a teacher leader, check out CO

ASCD’s teacher leadership micro-credentials.

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